A first-person account by The Hindu’s Pakistan Correspondent who was close at hand
Rawalpindi: Benazir Bhutto, 54, chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, was killed in a gunfire attack-cum-suicide bombing minutes after she finished addressing an election rally here on Thursday.
Ms. Bhutto had descended the stage at Liaquat Bagh, the venue of the rally, and got into a waiting car behind the stage. The vehicle, accompanied by several other escort cars with her supporters and PPP bodyguards, was leaving the venue when the explosion took place, about 5-20 p.m.
I was about 30 feet away from the blast in a crowd of people waiting to leave the rally from a parallel gate. A wall separated the two gates. The police had stopped us so that Ms. Bhutto’s convoy could leave.
I heard two rounds of automatic gunfire, which I mistook to be firecrackers at first. In the next second, a huge ball of flame went up in the air, accompanied by a massive explosion. People screamed and ran in all directions. I ran away from the blast first, and then went back towards it, quite apprehensive that there would be a second blast.
Daylight was fast fading but the first thing I saw was a dismembered head, face down, lying just outside the gate where I had stood hours earlier. The road was spattered with blood well beyond the gate where I had stood seconds earlier.
A little distance away, where the bomber had struck, lay several bodies, many of them dismembered. There was thick blood on the road and people were surging back and forth from the scene. Many of them were crying, some shouting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf. The police were trying to keep the crowds away — without much success. Some dazed PPP activists stood among the bodies, beating their heads and wailing.
Ms. Bhutto’s car had apparently sped away from the scene, and PPP workers at the spot believed she had got away. Sherry Rehman, her spokesperson, who was in a car behind Ms. Bhutto’s, also thought the PPP leader had escaped the attack.
But people had doubts. As I moved here and there talking to eyewitnesses, many asked me: “Is Bibi okay?, “How is Benazir?”
It was only later I found out that she died of bullet wounds from the gunfire that I had heard. The car took her straight to Rawalpindi hospital, where her death was announced by PPP senator Babar Awan to an angry and grieving crowd.
Back at the scene of the blast, there was chaos, with ambulances rushing in, their sirens screaming, the police trying to keep people away and the wounded trying to make sense of what had happened to them. On the pavement sat a man dressed in a brown suit, his trouser leg rolled up and blood gushing out of a wound. He was clutching his head in shock.
One of Ms. Bhutto’s bodyguards, wearing a T-shirt in the red and green PPP colours with “Benazir Jan Nisar” written on it, stood screaming. His face was covered with blood. “I was on the footboard of her vehicle. There was a man who came towards the car, there was an explosion, I don’t know anything after that,” said the man, identifying himself as Ayyaz Pappu of the Pakistan Students’ Federation, the youth wing of the PPP. He was escorted away by his friends.
Inside the gate from where Ms. Bhutto’s vehicles had begun to roll out, lay two bloodied people. Someone rolled over one of them, and as the man breathed his last, the person who had rolled him over whispered to him: “Say the name of Allah, quickly, say the name of Allah.”
As I drove back to Islamabad from Rawalpindi with a friend, the text messages started coming in: “Shaheed Benazir.” On the main road to Islamabad, at two places where the PPP had put up stalls to welcome Ms. Bhutto to Rawalpindi, her first visit for a public meeting in perhaps 10 years, activists had started gathering to mourn as the news of their leader’s assassination began trickling in.